Friday, January 29, 2010

A busy few days for neuroscience

Jeez!  Don't check the stories on ScienceDaily on a regular basis, and they really start to pile up.  Anyway, here are my picks for the neuroscience articles I found most interesting from the past few days:

This one is another retelling of the paper I linked to in a recent post, the one about how female math teachers' anxiety seems to be contagious, but only the girls seem to catch it.

This one bolsters the claim that corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is involved in alcohol dependence (i.e. alcoholism, or addiction).  CRH is a hormone that is released by the hypothalamus in the brain in response to stress.  CRH then acts in the pituitary gland causing it to release, among other things, another hormone (called adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH) which stimulates the production of "stress" hormones (corticosteroids).  Anyway, the study shows that drugs that block CRH activity lessen the symptoms of alcohol dependence in rats, which means they may hold some promise for treating alcoholism in humans.

This one is about Death-Associated Protein Kinase (with a name like that, how could I not link to this article).  The "death" in the name of the protein refers cell death, not the death of a whole person, but cell death is an important thing to understand, particularly in the brain, where stroke and other injuries can activate cell death pathways, as can neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  Figuring out a way of preventing the cells from committing mass suicide could prove beneficial for these conditions.

this one, suggests that men may, on average, feel less guilt than women.  At least in western countries (well Spain, where the study was conducted).  The study did look at several different age groups and found that the difference held up in all of them (with some minor differences).  I'm not really aware of any other studies that have looked at guilt in general across the sexes, so, of course, we'll need to wait and see if more research shores this up.  But in the meanwhile, it is still very interesting data.

And finally, this one, where researchers have shown that skin fibroblasts can be converted into neurons by activating a few genes known as transcription factors.  In 2007, Shinya Yamanaka (et al.) figured out that you could take fibroblasts (cells that can be obtained from a skin biopsy) and turn them into pluripotent stem cells, that is, stem cells that can become pretty much any type of cell in the body.  Since this remarkable discovery (which was Science magazine's breakthrough of the year that year, and will most likely earn Yamanaka a Nobel), numerous other researchers have tried (and several have succeeded) in using these induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells to model neurodegenerative diseases for which there are no good animal models.  For example, many researchers can study neurodegenerative conditions in mice or rats, but some diseases, like spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) are only found in humans, and so, lab animals may not provide the best insights.  Using Yamanaka's technique, researchers have been able to take skin biopsies from patients who have SMA, turn them into stem cells, and then, turn them into neurons, so they can better study the disease.  This new paper shows that you don't have to revert the fibroblasts to pluripotent stem cells, but you can get them to turn directly into neurons, eliminating the middle man so to speak, and saving a hell of a lot of time, hard work, and money in the process.  Of course, not only does this discovery make the process described above easier for studying diseases like SMA, but it also suggests that different cells in the body may not be all so different after all.

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